July 21, 2022

BLOCKS Make Waves at IMGD

Adam Morina wrote for The Young and Restless soap opera in L.A. around the same time that Ingram Mao was studying interior design at New York City's Pratt Institute. After enrolling at Interactive Media & Games Division (IMGD) MA degree program, the odd couple met mid-pandemic over the Discord chat app, where they swapped jokes, talked video games, and debated the virtues of PC versus Mac. "We both have artistic backgrounds and we're both sort of contrarians," Morina recalls, "So Ingram and I sort of gravitated toward each other. It started as a friendship but then our skill sets lined up so well that we decided 'Oh let's make something together.'" 

Morina and Mao joined forces during Richard Lemarchand's IMGD class to create VR experiential game Blocks, which last month earned a Yugo BAFTA Student Award nomination. Partially inspired by French filmmaker Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void, Blocks immerses the player into the mind of a performance artist trying to punch his way through emotional blocks, visualized as red triangles, so he can create again. The theme of forward motion comes naturally to both designers, Mao explains.  "We're both kind of go getters. We had a lot of energy coming into the project and we just kept the train rolling."

Morina, 29 and Mao, 26, took a break from their upcoming thesis projects to talk about the inspirations behind Blocks

How did you guys come up with the concept for Blocks?

Adam Morina: We wanted to put the person into a VR story where you have motivation and a character. Out of that came this idea of an artist after the death of his father. We wanted to match up what you do as the player with what the character is feeling, so our first focus was about interaction, and the things we came up with were very dance-y and flow-y, with a lot of arm movement. 

Ingram Mao: The emotion of this artist having a creative block, that's quite "meta" for us. 

You connect to that sense of anxiety built into the Blocks narrative?

Adam: [laughing] We very much relate to the Blocks situation, which is kind of about "masterpiece syndrome."

Masterpiece Syndrome? 

Adam: Richard Lemarchand, a huge mentor, told us about it when we took his class. It's about how you don't make progress if you keep thinking "This isn't good enough." While Ingram and I were building this game, just the two of us, at times we were like "Is this any good?" That feeling helped us figure out who the character was, for sure.

You also took a course from Virtual Reality pioneer Mark Bolas. What did you learn from Professor Bolas?

Ingram: He's very much about designing emotional situations, so the framework for Blocks -- going from an angry situation to a hopeful one -- was definitely inspired by Mark.

Both of you are on track to graduate with your MFA's in 2023. What are your plans for the future?

Ingram: I'll probably work at a big tech company, just to be in the forefront of the VR industry.

Adam: I'd either want to design for one of the triple A studios, or the other thing that Ingram and I talk about a lot is starting our own studio and building projects in the VR space with our own team. There's stuff in Blocks that really hasn't done been before, so we feel like we have a pretty strong voice.